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Home » Cardiology » The impact of diet and lifestyle on cholesterol levels

Rob Hobson

Registered Nutritionist, Flora ProActiv

Plant sterols are a critical ingredient that can help people lower cholesterol using their daily diet.

Eating a healthy and balanced diet is crucial in helping people reduce their cholesterol levels. High levels of “bad” cholesterol can have serious health implications, potentially leading to increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, peripheral arterial disease and vascular dementia.

But as registered nutritionist Rob Hobson explains, there are a few ways people can reduce their levels of cholesterol through diet and lifestyle changes.

Understanding cholesterol

Cholesterol is produced naturally in the liver. It makes hormones, vitamin D, digestive fluids and helps organs function properly.

There are two types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (bad cholesterol), or LDL; and high-density lipoprotein (good cholesterol) also known as HDL.

“Your diet has a major impact on your bad cholesterol, especially saturated fats which increase the LDL levels that can cause health issues. They are found in foods such as fatty meats, full-fat dairy products like cream, butter and cheese and in processed foods”, says Hobson. “The bad cholesterol, the unhealthy kind, builds up in arteries and forms deposits called plaques.”

Risks of high cholesterol

“A 2018 Health Survey for England found 47% of adults have raised cholesterol, but a lot of them do not realise it,” he says. “One of the dangers is from the fatty deposits that occur in blood vessels. Eventually, these deposits will grow and arteries start to narrow because of plaques building up, making it difficult for blood to flow.

“If a piece of plaque falls off and forms a clot, depending on where that goes, it can cause heart attack or stroke.”

Because high cholesterol often has no symptoms, Hobson advises anyone over the age of 40 to have a blood test to check their cholesterol levels and triglycerides, which show how fat is being stored in the body.

47% of adults have raised cholesterol, but a lot of them do not realise it.

Plant sterols in diet

Raised cholesterol can be tackled by taking statins – a group of medicines that lower LDL cholesterol and are prescribed in tablet form by GPs. But in some cases, medication can be prevented by following a low cholesterol diet and exercising.

As part of a healthy lifestyle, eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables can help naturally lower cholesterol, especially foods, such as Flora ProActiv, which contain plant sterols.

“We know from research that 1.5-2.4 grams a day of plant sterols can lower cholesterol by 7-10% in 2-3 weeks,” he says. “Plant sterols are compounds from plants that have the ability to remove cholesterol from the body.”

Some 50 clinical trials have shown the efficacy of plant sterols, which are natural substances found in small quantities in fruits and vegetables, oils, nuts, seeds and grain and lower ‘bad’ cholesterol in the blood.

As well as consuming plant sterols, looking at “food swaps” to get yourself healthier and reduce cholesterol is a positive step.

Because high cholesterol often has no symptoms, Hobson advises anyone over the age of 40 to have a blood test to check their cholesterol levels.

This could involve cutting out sugary breakfast cereals and eating foods containing oats and barley, which have beta-glucans and have been shown to lower cholesterol or switching to dairy-free alternatives which have also been shown to reduce saturated fats from the diet. This could also involve reducing red meat intake and having beans and pulses instead at some meals, as well as eating plenty of fruit and vegetables.

Maintaining a healthy body weight also cuts the risk of coronary heart disease. “While statins have a role, and it is fine to take plant sterols, which have a different mechanism of action to statins, a first approach would be to try and get yourself healthy. Take a 360-degree look at all aspects of health and diet and the way you live your life,” says Hobson, who has an ambassadorial role with Flora ProActiv.

It is vital for people to manage their cholesterol in order to lower cardiovascular risk, this can be done through lifestyle and diet interventions with the use of plant sterols in the diet.

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